Nowadays, the media has been preoccupied with the age appropriateness of social media and the Internet in general with articles of youth cyberbullying, sexting and online predation. In spite of these seemingly prevalent issues, our legal system is ill prepared to properly deal with these problems. This is partly because adolescents are considered to be naive and ignorant when it comes to cyberspace. Thus, they are rendered unaccountable for the harm they sometimes cause to others on the Web. Many authoritative figures believe that adolescents do not realize the potential danger they create when they call their friends “sluts” as a joke or post provocative pictures of themselves in bathing suits. On the other hand, younger generations are also applauded for their ability to quickly learn and exercise sophisticated usage of new technology that supersedes their predecessors. For example, I can remember how amazed my mother was when she watched me rapidly construct her Facebook page after she spent hours just trying to post a profile picture. She still asks me to help her navigate the site as well as set up her privacy settings even though she has been a member for a couple of years now. Therefore, “on the one hand, the child is positioned as a not-yet competent, not-yet complete social actor who is at risk; and on the other hand, the child is constructed as empowered” (Willett 284). So the question is: Are youths really as unknowledgeable as they might appear?
One recent story addressing this subject is featured in William Glaberson’s New York Times article “Rutgers Verdict Repudiates Notion of Youth as Defense.” Dharun Ravi, a former student of Rutgers University, secretly streamed his gay roommate Tyler Clementi having relations with another man on the Internet inviting others to watch in addition to commenting about it on his Twitter account. Upon this discovery, Clementi subsequently killed himself by jumping off the George Washington Bridge in 2010. In his court case, Ravi claimed that his actions were foolish with no intention to harm his roommate and asserts that he has no bias towards homosexuals. He was basically counting on the jurors to interpret his behavior less severely due to the innocence associated with his young age, which he believed in strongly enough to turn down an appealing plea offer. To his dismay, his defense failed terribly as he was convicted of bias intimidation as well as other charges which may include a prison sentence and deportation.
The jurors’ decision is said to be a model for other hate-crime lawsuits surrounding teens because the author notes that “it seems to repudiate the notion that youth was a defense” (Glaberson). It appears to settle the debate over whether youths are liable for their interactions that harm others by declaring that if they are able to employ advanced technology like webcams maliciously, then they should be held accountable for their transgressions. Rebekah Willett, a media culture researcher, came to a similar conclusion in her paper “‘As soon as you get on Bebo you just go mad’: young consumers and the discursive construction of teenagers online” in which she interviewed twenty-four young people aged fourteen to sixteen on their use of social media. Her results showed that subjects positioned themselves as too young for certain SNS like Facebook, but old enough to use other sites to connect with others. Conscious of their vulnerability, they commented on the strategies they employed to protect themselves from the risks of being online. These youths acknowledged that they were in control of asserting their own agency and took safety measures without their parents necessarily demanding that they do so. In my opinion, this awareness of age appropriateness allows youths to be deemed as “independent actors in their own right” when it comes to the Internet, especially social media (Willett 284). Although context should be taken into consideration when assessing the content of their postings, they seem to recognize the ramifications of being online and willingly construct their profiles based on their perceived standard of appropriateness. Therefore, they should be held legally responsible for the wrongdoings they sometimes commit, as exemplified by Ravi‘s case.
Personally, I see the Internet and social media as privileges that can be misused rather easily. (Keeping in mind that I agree that the abuse of the technology is not as prevalent as society makes it out to be, which created this current moral panic.) However, youths are mindful of their safety as most voluntarily navigate and portray themselves on sites with caution. They are more knowledgeable of technology than many give them credit it for. In my opinion, if one deems oneself as sensible and mature enough to partake in the endless opportunities that the Internet has to offer, then one should be prepared to face the consequences when one employs it to harm another. Although I am sure the story is more complicated than I make it out to be, I believe Ravi‘s defense was weak and inapplicable. Ravi knew that inviting others to watch Clementi with his partner on webcam and tweeting references about it would not benefit his roommate. Thus, in accordance with the jurors’ decision, I believe that depending on the circumstances young people should be held accountable because they are well aware of what they doing when they intentionally hurt others online.